My key learnings about #globaldev 20 years after I took my first undergrad course (Links & Contents I Liked 300)

The anniversary of my 300th link review coincides with another one: Pretty much exactly 20 years ago I took my first undergrad class in international development during my first semester at the University of Potsdam.
Technically speaking, I never finished my BA in Political Science there, but my interest in development and global politics remains until today…

Since I already shared reflections on curating #globaldev content on the occasion of previous anniversary postings, I thought I try out something else today and span a broader arch to some of my key learnings from following research and public debates in development for two decades now.

Each of the points below probably deserves a post of its own, but in the meantime, let’s get the debate started!

By the way: I sent out a ‘proper’ link review in my very first newsletter as a special treat to subscribers-so if you are not on the list, you know what you need to do now…

I will be at the AidEx Expo in Brussels next week and hopefully have a chance to say Hello to some of you!

So what are some of my key learnings about #globaldev 20 years after I started studying this stuff?

Does any of this matter under conditions of climate change?
I wanted to add this point at the end, but then realized that it is a bit of an elephant in the room; when I started studying development, there was a strong believe that ‘global governance’ would be able to address many pressing issues, including
‘global warming’.
More summits, new institutions and a global civil society would be able to build momentum for sustainable change, as in: stopping climate change. The reality of 2018 is slightly different, though…

Large organizations have a remarkable ability to survive
The organizational set-up of global development pretty much looks exactly the same as it did in 1998. ‘UN reforms’ came and went, the end of World Bank and IMF always seemed to be around the corner and who would have expected that large INGOs only now set up their headquarters in the Global South?
From OSCE to OECD, from UNIDO to Oxfam, from Sida to USAID organizations are still very much alive-even if the ‘marketplace’ has become more crowded and philanthrocapitalism has reshaped some of the large organizations in the industry.

The private sector does not care about development

Global public goods, Public-Private-Partnerships, CSR,…the private sector had just re-emerged as an important ally in the mid- 1990s.
From customers penalizing exploitative business models to companies that would embrace sustainability to ensure survival we have heard it all. Organizations tried out Fairtrade models, hired value-chain consultants and applauded companies that ‘empowered’ people through their products.
But at the end of the day the development discourse hardly changed how businesses, especially multi-national companies, make profits, but the business discourse is still very much alive to signify ‘innovative’ development approaches.

The economists are firmer in the development research driver’s seat than ever before
This is not just an insight from the last 20 years, but for much of modern development history: Economists call the shots.
Talk about multi-, inter- and cross-disciplinary research came and went and, in the aftermath, the only thing that has changed is that political science has turned into elaborated mathematics. Introducing RCTs, advanced econometrics etc. to the debate has solidified their position at the top of development research and thinking.

Revolutions usually don’t revolutionize much
I have seen the budget support revolution, social movement revolution, digital revolution, open data revolution and blockchain revolution, of course.
And then you walk into a country office of a development organization and it still looks like 1998 with better computers in many places. I understand the notion of ‘revolutions’ as signifiers for innovation, upgrades, new alliances and more workshops, but large-scale claims of revolutions usually don’t change much of the practice.

The world is getting better & there
’s positive news about development (just don’t listen to Steven Pinker…)
Many people would not have believed Our World in Data in 1998. Even before the Internet and more recent developments in the US for example, there has almost always been a feeling that things are getting worse-only three years after 1998, 9/11 happened.
I don’t want to go into detail, but it is a fact that fewer babies die, more people live healthier longer and no longer in absolute poverty. Many of the positive changes have only indirectly to do with development interventions, but by and large aid has been money well spent and with quite good returns, despite a polemic focus on waste and corruption.

Inequality is kind of a big deal
However, my 1998 introduction to development course did not focus much on inequality, philanthrocapitalism or platform capitalism.
Even if development may not lead to a Sweden of the 1970s and 1980s the idea was that it would probably lead to some kind of West Germany or UK. Inequality was an issue to discuss post-war land ownership in Latin America or post-conflict recovery in an African country, but not imaginable on the scale we are witnessing today.

#AidToo & Decolonization - why only now ?!?
There have always been discussions about ‘professionalizing’ the aid industry, mainstreaming this or that or practicing the values we are preaching.
It’s mind-boggling that two massive topics that primarily affect women, power relations and how we conceptualize development have only recently been challenged fundamentally.
Neither have we managed to disrupt the traditional North-South direction of aid work nor have we managed to create an industry that leads by example when it comes to professional and organizational conduct.

Going for development studies is still the best decision I’ve ever made professionally
I’m very cautious not to write ‘I would do it all over again’. Studying development has been a path that was sparked by my undergraduate courses and it has connected me to an amazing group of friends and colleagues and interesting, worthwhile academic as well as professional challenges.
My role as a white, male, European professional has been questioned in those 20 years like never before in modern development and I am fully aware that any small impact I will make on the field will be through my focus on digital topics and primary engagement with audiences in the Global North.

Which brings me back to link review #300:
Thank you everybody who has contributed since 2011!
Your writing, sharing, reading & engagement has turned this into one of the foundations of my work and 600 blog posts later I am still feeling exhilarated and happy when I press the Publish button one more time!


  1. Dear Thomas, Congratulations! This Blog is always ahead of dicussions. We try to keep up...


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Dear white middle class British women: Please don't send used bras (or anything, really) to Africa

Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

Happy retirement Duncan Green!

Links & Contents I Liked 500

Artificial Intelligence (AI) & ChatGPT in development and humanitarian work-a curated collection